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Bibles in China: The Gray Zone Shrinks


I have always been fascinated by so-called bans in China, because most of them are trumpeted in this way: “China bans illegal XXX!” or “China bans XXX illegal activity.”

From a rule-of-law perspective, the sentences make no sense. If an item or an activity is illegal, why does it need to be banned? Isn’t that what a law against something is?

I thought of that last week when the China-watching internet melted over China’s newly imposed “ban” on the sale of Bibles online. Here is a sampling of the headlines:

While this news is decidedly not welcome, I must admit that my first thought when I heard it was “I wonder what took them so long.”

My second thought was “how can something that has technically never been legal be banned?”

As with most questions related to China, “it’s complicated.”

To understand what is going on, we need to remember that for publications to be legally distributed in China, they need to have a China-issued ISBN. To date, the Bible does not have one.

Instead the Bible is (and always has been) classified as an “internal publication” (内部), for internal distribution only. Bibles are published by the China Christian Council and are only for distribution within and by registered Christian churches. It has never actually been legal to sell them in the marketplace. In other words, the sale of Bibles outside of registered churches has always been illegal.

In the past decade, however, enforcement of that regulation has become, shall we say, rather lax, and numerous online retail outlets have offered the Bible for sale. They did this, not because it was suddenly legal to do so, but because the online space was a gray zone and there was little to no enforcement of the restrictions on Bible sales.

That changed last week.

According to Ian Johnson, writing in The New York Times,

The measures to limit Bible sales were announced over the weekend and began taking effect this week. By Thursday, internet searches for the Bible came up empty on leading online Chinese retailers, such as JD.com, Taobao, and Amazon, although some retailers offered analyses of the Bible or illustrated storybooks. The retailers did not respond to requests for comment, although Thursday is the start of a long holiday weekend in China.

The move aligns with a longstanding effort to limit the influence of Christianity in China. Among China’s major religions—which include Buddhism, Taoism, Islam and folk beliefs—Christianity is the only one whose major holy text cannot be sold through normal commercial channels. The Bible is printed in China but legally available only at church bookstores.

The advent of online retailers created a loophole that made the Bible easily available. This was especially important in China given the growing dominance of online shopping.

The closing of that loophole follows new government religious regulations that have effectively tightened rules on Christianity and Islam, while promoting Buddhism, Taoism and folk religion as part of President Xi Jinping’s efforts to promote traditional values.

Bibles are now no longer for sale online in China, and that is, indeed, bad news. But we need to be clear what hasn’t happened and what has happened. There have been no new regulations concerning Bible sales. There has been increased enforcement of existing regulations. In other words, the gray zone has shrunk considerably.

The underlying problem, however, remains: the overall restrictions on the distribution of Bibles remains. And, as Ian Johnson notes, these restrictions do not apply to sacred texts of other religions.

Until that is dealt with, we will be stuck with the ever-shifting (and now shrinking) size of the gray zone.

A note from the editor: At ChinaSource we seek to provide balanced and objective information for those seeking to understand and serve the church in China, particularly in a time of rapid change. As part of that commitment, we will continue to monitor this situation and keep you updated.

If you have more information or insight, please do not hesitate to contact us.

Image credit: Joann Pittman.
Joann Pittman

Joann Pittman

Joann Pittman is senior vice president of ChinaSource and editor of ZGBriefs. Prior to joining ChinaSource, Joann spent 28 years working in China, as an English teacher, language student, program director, and cross-cultural trainer for organizations and businesses engaged in China. She has also taught Chinese at the University... View Full Bio